When the NEA’S Council and chairman last July refused to fund four of the eighteen “solo performers and mime” grants the NEA staff had recommended, there was a tremendous reaction from the artists involved and the Joseph Papp crowd. Rejected! went the headline in the Washington Post‘s Show section. Most of the coverage concentrated on the personal orientation of the three “out” rejectees, and on the fourth’s (performance artist Karen Finley) now infamous way of expressing herself artistically by smearing chocolate on her naked body.
Less emphasized—though I am indebted to the Post for mentioning it—was the fact that one rejectee. Holly Hughes, has received funding already this year from the NEA’s Playwriting division for the same script for which she was almost funded by Solo Performers. Some might call that double-dipping. But when asked pointblank a staffer in the Theater program assured me that submitting a single piece for both Playwriting and Performance Art was perfectly OK. “Oh that’s fine,” she said. “It’s two completely separate panels”—in other words, two different funding categories with two different sets of judges.
Furthermore, all four of these Rejecteds! have received numerous grants from the NEA over the years. Tom Miller told the Post that he had received “four or five” NEA grants in the past eight years, Karen Finley has had something like nine, and both Holly Hughes and John Fleck received NEA grants just last year. Both Hughes and Finley submitted three applications this year, in three different categories, all of them recommended for funding by their reviewing panels.
An installation of Karen Finley’s that was being shown at New York’s Franklin Furnace in July when all this broke was also NEA-funded, according to Furnace spokeswoman Barbara Pollack. No doubt those were real tears Ms. Finley sobbed to the crowd at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater when she told them, “I am suffering.” She is fighting for a very significant portion of her income.
She may be winning. Ms. Finley and Ms. Hughes’s other rejected applications, in the Experimental category, were to be reconsidered in November. Ardis Krainik, general director of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, told the papers in support of the two that “You know whose side we’re on. This will come up in November and it will be fairly treated”—seemingly a promise that the funding will go through. Indeed, by an unanimous vote the Council reversed itself on its May decision not to give money to the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, which started this whole mess by funding the Mapplethorpe exhibit.
Multiple grant-getting is not limited to theater people. In January the NEA awarded a $20,000 “American Jazz Master Fellowship” grant to George Allan Russell, who had already received three NEA Music fellowships.
The fact is, rules against doubledipping or on-going funding of certain favorite artists are lax or nonexistent at the NEA. The Literature program seems to be the most strict: you may not apply for both a creative writing fellowship and a translation fellowship in the same year, you may not apply for three years after receiving a Literature grant, and you may never receive more than three Literature fellowships over the course of a lifetime.
In the Theater program, the application states that performance artists and mimes may not be funded for more than five consecutive years, though this sentence is qualified by a “generally” and there seems to be no difficulty in nonsequential funding. And getting, say, a Performance Art grant this year in no way precludes you from getting a Dance grant next year. This seems to be what Tom Miller has done. What limits there are at the NEA are only within categories of programs, not within programs (except Literature) or across the board.
What seems to happen more often, though, is that producing organizations will apply for a grant that will include monies for, say, a Karen Finley performance. The money is granted to a place like Franklin Furnace or The Kitchen in New York, which will keep some of the money for overhead costs, leaving the rest to be paid to the artist. This is how Serrano received his grant: it was a subgrant given to him by a Winston-Salem group.
When asked if arts organizations list on their applications whom they plan to include in their presentation series, NEA spokesman Kathy Christie replied, “They do. But then, too, sometimes they haven’t been able to schedule it all for the year and they have to get back to the Arts Endowment. It’s a little on the muddy side, but most of the time the Arts Endowment, by the time everything is done, knows exactly who’s done what.”
Referring to Karen Finley’s multigrants, Ms. Christie says that as for “one person getting eight or nine grants—they did not; they got maybe a fellowship here and a fellowship there.” In other words, because Franklin Furnace received the $20,000 of which $1,000 went for Ms. Finley’s July show, that should not count as a NEA grant to Karen Finley, even though she was paid with NEA monies to perform. The question is, of course, does floating the money through a producing organization, rather than giving it directly to the artist, mean that Karen Finley’s chocolate-smearing has been any less tax-supported?
As George Garrett pointed out in his July Chronicles article on arts funding—and as someone who has sat on the Literature program expert panels he should know—given the tremendous number of applicants who are rejected, what does get funded is not funded by accident.
Naturally, that is especially true within individual programs like Literature. But do the various programs talk to each other? According to Ms. Christie, “All the time.” So Dance presumably knows that they are funding an artist who received a grant from Performance Art last year, and the Professional Theater Presenters category of the Theater program certainly knows that an NEA-funded theater series includes shows by artists who have received individual grants. There is nothing unintentional or against the rules or “mistaken” about it.
What is most disturbing about all this is not the four Rejecteds’ artistic pretensions or greediness; it’s that nobody at the NEA seems to think there is anything wrong with double-dipping, or jumping from program to program to keep somebody funded, or with getting around the fellowship limits by finding an organization that will do the publicly funded equivalent of money-laundering.
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